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Gujarat tourism: Riding the Bachchan bandwagon?

I got an SMS from a senior IAS bureaucrat of Gujarat government a few days back, frantically wanting me to publicize the invitation he had received for Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s 70th birthday on October 10. The SMS read, “I happen to be the only person from the state to be invited for Bachchan’s biggest birthday bash…” I received another SMS from a PR consultant a day later which said about the same thing. This wasn’t the first time this bureaucrat had tried to show off his “closeness” to Bachchan. During informal talks, he would tell me rather quite often how Bachchan, during his visit to Gujarat for tourism advertisements, would invariably dine with his family at his residence in Ahmedabad, and how when controversy broke out about Bachchan’s involvement with chief minister Narendra Modi over tourism ads, he saved the situation. “Amitabh had almost walked out. But, through my Bollywood connections, I brought him back”, he told me. The names he dropped included were of his brother Rahul Mittra, producer of two wonderful films, “Paan Singh Tomar” and “Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster.” Another was of Hrithik Roshan, who happens to be his nephew.
This bureaucrat even told me how he became instrumental in ensuring that Bachchan bought a large plot of land just next to Modi’s dream project, Gujarat International Finance Tec-city (GIFT), about six kilometers off Gandhinagar, the state capital, where the superstar is likely build a palatial bungalow. Modi wants to propagate GIFT as a financial city on par with Dubai and Singapore, though financial experts say at best it is an “upcoming real estate hub” or “a future IT park.” The bureaucrat told me how he took Bachchan late one evening in his car (so that nobody would see them) to show the piece of land before it was bought. “I got done all formalities, so that there were no flaws. Land deals are tricky. Bachchan had problems with similar deals in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. I personally examined all papers.” It’s by now common knowledge in Sachivalaya that during the shooting of tourism ads, this bureaucrat would invariably accompany Bachchan right from the airport to the ad sites, and back. He did this for four-odd times Bachchan had visited – something that no IAS babu would care to do.
Riding the Bachchan pull, tall claims are being made by Gujarat government that state tourism has progressed by leaps and bounds. There are no qualms about it – it’s all said to be due to Bachchan. Even Modi has admitted this. While this bureaucrat may be instrumental in Bachchan’s involvement, thanks to his alleged closeness to Big B, things are not as simple as they appear. I visited Dwarka and Somnath with my extended family two years ago. There was no decent place to stay or have meal, security concerns were more important than looking forwards to tourists with an open arm. You couldn’t even take a simple photograph of the temples. Yet, I found that it had begun to attract higher number of pilgrims than was the case before, creating an even higher congestion. The way to Somnath was very bumpy and dusty. We decided to move out immediately. Things, apparently, haven’t changed a bit thereafter.
A few weeks ago, a far-off relative went to Somnath, and wanted to make it a religious-cum-tourism occasion. Coming from a well-known Sanskritist’s family living in a North Gujarat village, Raigadh, he is a communications engineer with an MNC, and performs puja with equal competence. A young man in 30s, he accompanied his wife to Somnath, thinking, post-puja they would enjoy the sea shore. And this is what he told me: “The puja at Somnath was great. But our maiden visit to the sea shore was a disaster. It’s so dirty. We just couldn’t stand it. We had decided to live there for two days, but got out of Somnath immediately. While one reason was the dirt strewn around, the other was lack of hotel facility. We moved to Diu (a union territory), stayed in a hotel, and enjoyed the sea shore for two days”. Indeed, all that the Bachchan ads seem to have done is to develop more attraction for the already popular “religious tourism”. Ask this bureaucrat, and he leaves things to market forces: “The rush is there, market will take its own course.” Why can’t one develop Gujarat’s sea shore, India’s longest, about 20 per cent, beyond temples? and the answer was: “It’s impossible, blame it on prohibition.”
Recently I came across a new state-sponsored book, “Coastline of Gujarat: A Study on Ecology and Development Potential of Beaches”. About the beach next to Dwarka, this is what it says: “Religious waste like flowers, coconut shells and cloth is dumped at the confluence of River Gomati and the sea. Plastic waste is also generated out of eatables sold by vendors. These are dumped into the sea at various locations. Waste collectors find the coastal areas convenient to dump the city waste.” Further: “Fishing communities generate waste such as stale fishes and household waste from their day-to-day activities and this is either directly disposed of in the sea or dumped near the sea shore. Torn and unusable fishing nets are also discarded into the sea.” About the coastline off Somnath, it says: “Different types of waste routinely get discarded by vendors and tourists alike, causing immense cleanliness problems. No proper arrangements exist for their disposal. Horse and camel riding leads to lot of congestion and animal excreta on the beach. Most of the tourist activity is concentrated within a small stretch of the beach close to the temple entrance. There is heavy overcrowding and the waste is disposed of in this narrow stretch and is spread by the wind and the waves across the entire beach.”
The book, published by Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC), also suggests that unrestricted industrial activity has adversely affected the beaches. The beach at Gopnath, for instance, is a victim of the Alang ship-breaking yard, situated next to it. The waste that reaches Gopnath, also a religious spot in Saurashtra, includes “thermocol, rusted iron and steel and other harmful remains from the ship.” The beach at Mithapur, again in Saurashtra, has been victim of “Tata Salt and Chemical Works, one of the largest salt manufacturing units in the Gulf of Kutch. Such units pose a few environmental concerns for the coast. In June 2001, about a lakh mangrove trees died due to leakage of brine water from the pipe of Tata Chemicals Ltd near Poshitra. This was the first important case officially recorded against damage on such a scale.” Nothing has changed thereafter.
A yet-to-be-published “State of Environment Report” notices “mangrove depletion” as the main reason for salinity ingress along the coastline of Mundra and Abdasa of Kutch district. “These mangroves were cleared for industrial expansion”, it says, adding, at other places as well, industrial pollution became the “major reason for salinity ingress.” Another reason mentioned for salinity ingress relates to mining and quarrying of limestone deposits, which had long acted as barriers between sea water and underground sweet water along Saurashtra coast, thanks to Gujarat government granting “mining lease and license to several mining companies.” The report admits, “Gujarat comes next to only West Bengal in the total extent of coastal salt affected soils. It comes to 59 per cent of the reported salt affected area in the state and 21 per cent of the total coastal salinity of the country.” True, there are pristine beaches like Ahmedpur-Mandvi, but it is so close to Diu that none cares to visit it. The GEC report mentions that there is no provision here for drinking water, changing rooms, and toilets”, nor are there any “dustbins.”


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